This is going to be a long dispatch. There are four reasons for this:
1. It’s been a while, and I kind of feel bad about that, particularly since one of my faithful readers actually contacted me to ask in a polite way why the hell I hadn’t written anything lately. I’m going to try to make up with length what I’ve missed in frequency.
2. I’m going to write about the European Union’s smallest member, and I feel it fitting in a strange way that it should get a long dispatch.
3. The country in question has always held a strange fascination for me and I finally made it there, so I’m enthusiastic.
4. For once, I visited someplace with an actual intention to discover it and write about it. Most of my trips are for other reasons; the discovery and writing are just pleasant byproducts.
All of this refers to Malta. Some of you may remember that I mentioned my desire to visit Malta in one of my dispatches about the Shanghai Expo. Well that dispatch made me think. After all, Malta isn’t really all that far from Paris (it’s certainly closer than Shanghai) and I had few excuses not to go. I therefore managed to convince my wife that we needed a long weekend in Malta.
In case you’ve never heard of Malta, or perhaps only vaguely heard of it (It has a cross, right? Don’t they wear funny hats? Why do I think of Humphrey Bogart?), Malta is a small island, or rather a small cluster of islands situated between Sicily and Tunisia. The country has a land area of about three hundred square kilometers and a total population of about four hundred thousand people. It’s as if Omaha, Nebraska gained its independence.
Malta, however, is a real country, as opposed being one of Europe’s accidental countries. For example, I’m sure that some of you are even now pointing out to me in your minds that the smallest EU member is Vatican City (about which I’ve written, for that matter), or Monaco (ditto). But these countries, along with places like Liechtenstein and San Marino aren’t really countries, regardless of their legal status. They’re principalities, or autonomous doohickeys, existing as enclaves because some treaty at the end of the Napoleonic wars forgot about them. Or, in the case of the Vatican, because popes pay taxes only to themselves and can excommunicate you if you disagree. None of these countries ever had their own currencies and they certainly never had their own languages. Malta is an honest to goodness nation, with a language that I’d give one of my toes to speak. It’s perfectly useless as languages go, particularly since the country has English as its second official language, so you don’t even need Maltese to speak to the Maltese. It’s just that NO ONE will ever understand you or even be able to identify it unless he or she is also Maltese. It’s a stunningly unusual language, sounding to my ears like a mix of Italian and Arabic, which is essentially what it is. How cool would it be to speak Maltese?
It’s not surprising that the language mixes Italian and Arabic influences, because Malta does as well. For that matter, Malta mixes influences from just about anybody who ever happened to pass by.
The island was Carthaginian, Roman, Byzantine, and Arab at various points in history, until the Spanish emperor Charles V gave it to the holy order of the Knights of St. John after the aforementioned knights got kicked out of their previous abode, Rhodes, by the ever-troublesome Turks (long story… think crusades). The order ran the island (as the Knights of Malta) up until 1798, when a short Frenchman from a different Mediterranean island showed up. His folks got kicked out by the British in 1800, and then finally, in 1964, the Maltese themselves kicked the British out and became fully independent.
Despite all those foreign overlords the Maltese remained inimitably Maltese, all crowded together on their specks of rock. There are two inhabited specks: Malta itself, which contains over ninety percent of the population and just about all the industry, and Gozo, which is a scant six kilometers away. The other specks are much speckier, inhabited only by birds.
To the historical chagrin of the Maltese, as small as their specks are, they do dominate shipping in the Mediterranean Sea… whoever controls Malta can pretty much decide who passes between East and West. The Ottomans realized this from the start and came a knocking as soon as the knights had been thrown out of Rhodes, leading to a long, drawn-out siege in 1565. The knights held out this time around and decided they needed to guarantee that no one else would ever boot them off an island, so they fortified the place to the hilt.
For those of us who are enthusiastic about old fortifications, this is great news. The capital, Valetta, is one of the most overtly fortified cities I’ve ever seen, rivaling Bonifacio (see my dispatch on Bonifacio), but on a larger scale. A number of other areas around greater Valetta were also built to stare down any would-be medieval invader, and in the center of Malta is the ancient capital, Mdina, which sits on a rocky promontory surrounded by great, high walls. All of these are studded with emplacements for canons and guarded by big, thick gates to keep out marauding Turks.
Inside the walls are buildings with a very distinct architecture, one I’ve never really seen before. It’s interested how different peoples have different opinions about windows, for instance. Maltese buildings typically sport small enclosed balconies (note, I didn’t see a single “house” in Malta, just apartment buildings. Given the population density, I suppose that’s not surprising. But I digress.) These balconies jut out over the street, though not by much, and are fronted by a lot of small windows that open from the bottom, and can be propped out. Interestingly, this reminded me of traditional houses in Zurich, although that must be a coincidence. The Swiss are on the short list of those who never got around to invading Malta.
As you walk through the streets of a Maltese city, you’ll often find people leaning on their elbows up on their first floor balconies, shouting down through their propped-open windows to make conversation with someone below. We passed one little boy who was seemingly caught in a three-way conversation with two women who I’m going to assume were his mother and his grandmother, each on opposite sides of the street, each imploring him to do something. Given the ball in his hands and the pout on his face, I’ll further assume that what they wanted him to do was to stop playing and go in for dinner.
Valetta is a peninsula, and you can climb down to the waterfront and make your way around the base of the fortifications. Here, on a warm evening, you will occasionally run across young Maltese couples taking a stroll and poking into the tidal pools to mess with hermit crabs. Actually, the young Maltese couples had other things on their minds; my wife and I were the ones playing with the crabs. You should do this… near the northern point of the peninsula there’s really no one there at all except the aforementioned occasional young couples and the crabs. The walls of the city loom above you but look over your head to the sea beyond, taking no notice of you and leaving you strangely alone, which is perhaps why it’s so romantic and why couples go down there. The crabs probably come for the refuse.
Mdina is entirely different. The architecture is much the same, but it’s strangely clean. Valetta is clean too, but Mdina is clean the way Main Street in Disney World is clean… though without Big Brother (come on, don’t you get the impression when you’re at Disney that there are probably a crew of steely-eyed employees wearing Mickey Mouse ears sitting in front of rows of CCTV screens scrutinizing your every move?). Mdina’s cleanliness doesn’t seem enforced, it seems to be the by-product of the city’s lack of dogs (there’s a sign on the gate to the city that explicitly prohibits dogs from entering); the whiteness of the buildings; the absence of cars; and the incredibly bourgeois atmosphere. Mdina is rich, and the people who live in its closely guarded walls don’t want the common folk messing the place up with their dogs and their fiats.
But enough of cities—the real beauty of Malta is found not in man-made walls, but in the forbidding cliffs that ring the islands, and that can be best appreciated in the next dispatch.
To be continued.